Hepburn plays Rose Sayer, a missionary's sister living in German East Africa at the start of World War I. Bogart is Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking man with a riverboat who, among other things, brings the mail from town every few weeks. When Rose's brother dies, he offers to take her to the nearest town to catch a ship to Britain. Being gutsy as she is, Rose instead creates a daring plan to build a makeshift torpedo, sail down the river (which no one has ever done) and take out the Königin Luise, a ship patrolling the German-controlled lake that is the only thing standing in the way of the British army. This being a film with a man and a woman as its primary stars in the 1950s, naturally, they fall in love.
Bogart's role won him his only Oscar, while Hepburn would add yet another nomination to her impressive collection.
The Troubled Production film made such an impression on Hepburn she later wrote a book about it, entitled The Making of The African Queen: or How I Went To Africa With Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. Screenwriter Peter Viertel also wrote a novel about the shoot that was later adapted by Clint Eastwood as White Hunter Black Heart starring Eastwood as John Wilson (a Huston Expy). This film is notable for how damn long it took to come out on DVD despite widespread interest: it only came out in 2010, at least in the US. (An earlier British DVD was taken from a faded print. Later DVD and Blu-Ray releases are fully remastered.)
Rooster Cogburn, the sequel to 1969's True Grit starring John Wayne, co-starred Hepburn and was reputedly heavily inspired by this film (when it wasn't rehashing the first film.) It was even marketed as Rooster Cogburn (...and the Lady) to promote Hepburn in a manner reminiscent of this film.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: The end of the novel says that Rose and Charlie will try to find someone to marry them. In the film they actually are married on the deck of the German ship.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Charlie is described in the book as a rather funny-looking little man. In the movie, he's Humphrey Bogart. In the novel, he initially thinks of Rose as "ugly." In the movie, she's Katherine Hepburn.
- Adaptational Badass: In the movie version, Rose and Charlie actually succeed in sinking the "Louisa". In the novel they don't, the ship has to be sunk by a couple of more modern British gunboats transported overland piece by piece and then reassembled to be launched in the East African lake.
- Adaptational Nationality: Charlie is a patriotic working-class Englishman in the original novel. Humphrey Bogart couldn't do the English accent, so the character was made Canadian. His patriotism still applies to The British Empire, which sort of works.
- Adaptational Villainy: The Captain of the Louisa condemning Charlie and Rose to hang. In the novel he rejects that notion as uncivilized and hands them over to the British under a flag of truce.
- Appeal to Nature: Charlie cites this trope to justify his drunken behavior. Rose responds with the famous line, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above."
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted for the most part. Rose and Charlie certainly look like two people who have lived in Africa for a while - Charlie especially is very sun-tanned while Rose's complexion is explained by the hats she wears. Her clothes at least look as though she's had them for a while and they do rip after a while. Charlie seems to hang a lampshade on them not looking worse - by Rose being a Determinator who works hard to make an effort.
- Big Damn Kiss: Rose and Charlie kiss after surviving being shot at by German sentries.
- Character Development:
- Rose learns to let go of her social inhibitions and get down and dirty for the sake of their goal.
- Charlie likewise becomes more optimistic and less lazy.
- Contrived Coincidence:
- The village is attacked by the Germans just after Charlie leaves.
- Rose's brother dies just before Charlie comes back.
- Cosy Catastrophe: Charlie remarks early on that The African Queen has enough supplies for them to wait out the war on a quiet part of the island. Even when they're going down the river, they're never short of food or opportunities to wash.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Rosie is conservative and a bit of a prude at the beginning, though not exactly a shrew. She learns to loosen up over the course of the film due to the necessities of living on a riverboat and falling in love with Charlie. However, she maintains her iron will throughout.
- Determinator: Rose really will stop at nothing to make sure they get to their goal.
- Deus ex Machina: Some of the pair's obstacles are solved for them.
- When the Germans are firing on the African Queen, the commander has Charlie in his sights, but a flash of glare blinds him just before he can take the shot.
- When the African Queen is stuck and lost in a marsh, Rose prays for God's mercy. When she and Charlie go to sleep that night, a sudden rain-storm washes them into the lake where they were headed to.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: An unbelievable amount of stuff gets slipped under the radar in this movie...
Charlie: I don't blame you for being scared, Miss, not one little bit. Ain't no person in their right mind ain't scared of white water.
- [After going down the first rapids]:
Rose: I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!
Charlie: How's that, Miss?
Rose: I've only known such excitement a few times before - a few times in my dear brother's sermons when the spirit was really upon him...I must say I'm filled with admiration for your skill, Mr. Allnut. Do you suppose I'll try practice steering a bit that someday I might try? I can hardly wait... Now that I've had a taste of it.
- And the scene of her pumping the bilges, as he shows her how to do it...more...slowly...
- Drunken Song: Charlie sings "The Bold Fisherman" when he gets drunk.
- Dry Crusader: Rose is visibly upset when Charlie starts drinking gin, though she politely keeps her opinions to herself. Only after he gets drunk and rants at her does she dump all of his gin overboard while he's sleeping it off. But she later points out that she didn't throw away the gin because he was drinking, but because he reneged on his promise to her.
- Everyone Has Standards: The command staff of the Königin Luise are rather pitiless, but do give Charlie every opportunity to tell them the truth during his trial. The captain also grants Charlie his last request of marrying him and Rosie.
- Foreshadowing: When Rose first arrives, Charlie notes how important it is to "read the river" and points to signs in the water that reveal hidden obstacles. In the end, the Germans fail to notice the wreckage of the African Queen just beneath the surface and plow right into it.
- Four Eyes, Zero Soul: The commander of the German base wears round wire-rim glasses and sneers malevolently when ordering his troops to fire on the African Queen.
- Final Speech: Rose's brother makes one about the disappointments of his life.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Rose's brother loses his mind after he sees the destruction of the African village where he worked.
- Grande Dame: Rose has some of the characteristics of this type, especially early on.
- Hands-On Approach: Charlie shows Rose how to pump the bilges and so he gets very close to her.
- Human Ladder: Rose stands on Charlie's shoulders at one point to make a repair.
- Important Haircut: Charlie shaving off his stubble coincides with him taking the mission seriously from now on.
- Instant Leech: Just Fall in Water!: Charlie gets covered in leeches when he drags the ship through reeds. After pulling them all off, he has to get right back into the river.
- Kick the Dog: The German army burning down a native village in act one. At least it's implied that the villagers were only captured rather than killed.
- Last Request: Charlie and Rose get one before the Germans are about to hang them. Charlie uses it to ask the captain to marry them.
- MacGyvering: Charlie manages to repair his damaged boat using a makeshift bellows and anvil, and uses some cannisters, blasting powder and bullets to create some makeshift ramming explosives.
- Married at Sea: Well, married at a lake, but it's still the captain who marries them. Leads to one of the most iconic lines of the film.Captain: I now pronounce you husband and wife - proceed with the execution.
- Mood Whiplash: Charlie clowns around, making animal noises that send Rosie into fits of laughter. Then they both notice the huge waterfall ahead...
- Non-Nude Bathing: This is par for the course given the nudity taboos of post-Edwardian society. Rose and Charlie go bathing, he in long underwear and she in a shift. Even still, they stay on opposite sides of the boat, and she asks that he close his eyes when he helps her back onto the boat.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent:
- Rose is actually supposed to be a Briton (the sister of very British Robert Morley). Katharine Hepburn uses her own natural accent - which is actually a Mid-Atlantic one that actors in America were trained in on the stage back in the day (essentially the American equivalent to the British RP). It however sounds decently English to American ears.
- Humphrey Bogart couldn't do the cockney accent that Charlie was written with, so the character was changed to a Canadian, and Bogart uses his natural New York accent.
- Old Maid: Rose appears to be in her forties and is unmarried. Charlie actually calls her an old maid at one point, or more precisely a, "crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!"
- Opposites Attract: Charlie is a slobby Canadian engineer, while Rose is a prim and proper British missionary. They hit it off almost immediately.
- Percussive Maintenance: A screwdriver is caught in the ship's steam engine, requiring Charlie to occasionally kick it to keep it working. When Rose asks why he doesn't dismantle the engine to retrieve the screwdriver, Charlie says he enjoys doing the kicking.
- Period Piece: Released in 1951 but set in 1914.
- Pet the Dog: After her initial shock at Charlie invading her sleeping space, Rose invites him back in out of the rain and sets an umbrella over his head when she sees that he's still too close to the edge.
- The Pollyanna: Rose is this merged with Stiff Upper Lip. Katharine Hepburn was told by John Huston to play her like Eleanor Roosevelt, with her "society smile" at all times. She called this the best direction she ever received.
- Plot-Triggering Death: The death of Rose's brother is the reason why she leaves the village with Charlie.
- Plucky Girl: Rose is a little more refined than most examples, but her spirit and determination to sink the gunboat definitely puts her in there.
- The Quest: To sink the Louisa via a homemade torpedo.
- Road Trip Romance: Except on a boat.
- Shirtless Scene: Charlie gets one when he has to pull leeches off himself.
- Skewed Priorities: Subverted. Rose is initially horrified at Charlie coming into her sleeping quarters and orders him out. Then she realises how hard it's raining and tells him he can come back in.
- Slipknot Ponytail: Rose's hair finally comes out of its updo in the third act.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Rose's brother really looks down on Charlie and pointedly ignores him when they have tea together, despite her brother having to be a missionary because he failed his exams to be a higher-level priest.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Both Rose and Charlie display a lot of resilience during their journey without much complaining.
- Uptight Loves Wild: Rose in this case is the uptight that loves Charlie's wild.
- Vehicle Title: The African Queen is the name of Charlie's boat.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: It was based on the real-life sinking of a German gunboat in World War I that required hauling a boat through the wilderness. No, it was not done by a beautiful movie star and a plucky mechanic. It was done by the Royal Navy. In turn, Clint Eastwood made a thinly veiled depiction of this film's production in White Hunter Black Heart.
- Wartime Wedding: Rose and Charlie's wedding on the deck of the German ship.
- Wasn't That Fun?: Rose liked going through rapids!